Magazine | November 28, 2011, Issue

A Hero of Us All

Chen Guangcheng, China’s blind and brutalized lawyer

Last month, there were reports that Chen Guangcheng was dead. That they had at last killed him. “They”? China’s ruling Communists, who have tormented Chen for years. Other reports said, No, he is not dead: just in very bad shape. Any report about Chen is now impossible to confirm or deny. The authorities are not letting anyone from the outside see or talk to him.

Many people in the world regard Chen as one of the greatest men we have known in the last decade. These admirers work on the assumption that Chen is alive. A furious international campaign is under way to save him.

Chen was born on Nov. 12, 1971, in the Linyi area of Shandong Province. When a year old, he contracted a fever, which left him blind. Just a peasant, he educated himself, including in the law. He was ready and available to help people. Jianli Yang, a dissident now in America, calls him a “born leader,” someone who has always cared for others and whom others respond to.

To the extent he could, Chen helped the disabled petition for their rights. He helped farmers, too. In the worldwide press, he has been known as “the blind lawyer,” or “the barefoot lawyer,” or “the blind rural activist.” Many Chinese throughout the country know him simply as “the blind man.”

What gained him his fame, and torment, was his exposure of one fact: In the year 2005 alone, in just the Linyi area, there were 130,000 forced abortions and sterilizations. These procedures are brutal. Moreover, relatives of those who escaped the procedures were detained and tortured. Harry Wu, a long-famous dissident working in America, says that few outside China really understand the consequences of the one-child policy. Jing Zhang, another dissident, associated with the Boston-based group All Girls Allowed, points out that Chen touched one of China’s most sensitive nerves.

He organized a class-action suit against local Party officials. At first, the government in Beijing seemed pleased with him. In China, believe it or not, forced abortion and forced sterilization are illegal, officially. Beijing signaled that it would punish the guilty locals. But Chen was getting attention in the international press, celebrated as a whistleblower, and a blind peasant, at that. This displeased Beijing, which left Chen to the mercies of the local officials.

They seized him in March 2006. They harassed, detained, and beat members of his family and his lawyers. To him, they did worse. Eventually, they gave him a trial, but it was the usual sham. For example, his lawyers were forbidden to attend. Chen’s wife, Yuan Weijing, said, “There isn’t much hope. . . . We live in a nation without law, a nation without morality.” He was sentenced to four years and three months in prison.

There, he faced what political prisoners can be expected to face. He was beaten over and over. He went on hunger strikes. He was denied medicine.

His wife, sometimes under house arrest, sometimes not, did all she could to help him. The months before the Beijing Olympics in 2008 were especially bad for dissidents and other “troublemakers,” although Western supporters of those Olympics had said the Games would do wonders for China’s liberalization. The guard around Yuan increased from ten men to 40. She wrote a letter to Chinese president Hu Jintao, calling herself “nothing but a rights defender’s wife.” She told of the humiliations she and her family endured.

#page#The West protested too, in various ways. At the U.N., there were “working groups” and “special rapporteurs.” The State Department and the EU uttered their peeps. Organizations were good enough to give Chen awards, in absentia. Nothing moved the Chinese government.

He was released from prison in September 2010 and confined to his home in the village of Dongshigu. This sort of confinement is known as ruanjin, or soft detention, but it has been very hard. Chen and his family have been watched constantly and subjected to escalating abuses. In February, he managed to have a video smuggled out to the West. It was publicized by a group in Texas called the China Aid Association, which said that the video had come courtesy of a “sympathetic government source.”

In the video, Chen described the circumstances in which he and his family were being kept, and he said, “The thing we need to do now is conquer terror” and expose practices that are “lacking in human conscience.” He said he was “fully prepared” to be tortured after the video’s release, but was “not afraid.” Yuan Weijing spoke too, saying that her family was in danger. With a breaking voice, she expressed the hope that friends would take care of their children, Kerui and Kesi, if something happened to them, the parents.

What happened immediately is that Chen and Yuan were beaten to a pulp. A letter from Yuan, made available in June, told us the following:

More than ten men covered me totally with a blanket and kicked my ribs and all over my body. After half an hour’s non-stop torture, I finally squeezed my head out of the blanket. I saw more than ten men surrounding Chen Guangcheng, torturing him. Some of them twisted his arms forcefully while the others pushed his head down and lifted his collar up tightly. . . . Guangcheng was not able to resist and passed out after more than two hours.

The letter details a great deal more.

Infuriated by the video, the authorities did their best to ensure that nothing could get in or out of the Chen home. They removed the family’s electronics and sealed the windows with metal sheets. They installed surveillance cameras. They plundered the house of almost everything, down to family photos, toys, and Chen’s white cane. The goal was to isolate the family completely.

Over the months, a stream of visitors have trekked to Dongshigu, hoping to see Chen. These include writers, lawyers, advocates for the disabled, and ordinary citizens. They also include foreign diplomats and journalists. All have been repulsed by teams of thugs at the four entrances to the village. These thugs — a mixture of policemen and their hirees — have detained, beaten, robbed, and shot at the would-be visitors. Many of these incidents are meticulously documented.

Impossible to document, of course, is Chen’s condition at the moment. But we know for sure that beatings, malnutrition, and illness have taken their toll. The question is, To what degree? Chen’s supporters in China and around the world are redoubling their efforts in his behalf. Some people are risking a journey to Dongshigu on November 12, Chen’s 40th birthday. There is also a “sunglasses campaign.” Chen, like many blind people, wears sunglasses, and supporters are donning their own sunglasses and having their picture taken, to be posted on the Internet. It is a gesture of solidarity, a way of getting Beijing’s attention.

#page#There is also pressure on an American movie company. Relativity Media has just started filming 21 and Over in, of all places, Linyi. They must be within shouting distance of Dongshigu. The company is working in cooperation with the same Party officials who are brutalizing Chen. The movie, according to publicity, is a “hilarious comedy” about “two childhood friends who drag their straight-arrow buddy out to celebrate his twenty-first birthday the night before an all-important medical school interview.” And “when one beer leads to another, the evening spirals into a wild epic misadventure of debauchery and mayhem that none of them will ever forget.”

The same press release quotes Zhang Shajun, a key Party official. He welcomes his “good friend Ryan Kavanaugh and his great company Relativity” and promises to “provide the best service possible in order to help make the movie successful worldwide.” Naturally, human-rights groups have asked Relativity Media to use whatever leverage it has to help Chen Guangcheng, or at least inquire into him. The company has so far seemed disinclined.

On another front, Jianli Yang has written the State Department, asking it to bar from entering the United States a Party official named Li Qun. Li studied at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, and even served as an assistant to New Haven’s mayor. Now, according to Yang, he is the Party official chiefly responsible for Chen’s ordeal.

Have international protests done any good at all? Reggie Littlejohn, president of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, says yes: “I believe Chen would be dead by now but for people in the West speaking out for him.”

Across China, Chen is a symbol of human rights, like Gao Zhisheng, another lawyer, who has been “disappeared,” and Liu Xiaobo, the political prisoner who is also the 2010 Nobel peace laureate. But Sharon Hom of Human Rights in China makes a point that is depressing and inspiring at the same time: There are many, many like Chen, Gao, and Liu, but whose names are unknown to us. They languish in prisons, “black jails,” psychiatric wards, and other dark places. They have stuck their necks out for their rights and all people’s.

Why do they do it? Why do they risk, or guarantee, the full wrath and murderous power of a dictatorship? Of Chen Guangcheng, Harry Wu says, “He had to tell the truth. Simple. He had no choice but to tell the truth. That is why people appreciate him, and why the government hates him.” Perhaps Chen’s blindness gave him an extra dose of compassion and courage. Perhaps not. In any case, there is someone much like him in Cuba, the blind lawyer and activist Juan Carlos González Leiva. The bravery of such people is hard to account for. But it can be admired.

In that video, released earlier this year, Chen said, “A society that is not built on a foundation of fairness and equality, but instead relies on bullying and violence, cannot possibly maintain lasting stability.” He is probably right about that. Yet think how many suffer and die in the meantime.

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